By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
“This was a message for the ages.”
– Earl Lloyd, the first black man to play in the NBA on the punishment handed out to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver.
If anyone knows about the message that had be sent out in the wake of the Donald Sterling controversy it is Earl Lloyd.
He has seen racism up close and personal and has been an instrumental figure in doing what he could to lessen it.
Not erase it, for apparently that just isn’t going to happen, not if you have a man owning an NBA team 64 years after Lloyd first walked onto an NBA court following a collegiate career at West Virginia State.
Lloyd had suffered through his share of racism, as he noted earlier this year when a statue was dedicated to him at West Virginia State.
Lloyd was drafted in the ninth round by the Washington Capitols in 1950, at the same time two other black athletes were drafted, each being able to stake a claim to being a first.
Chuck Cooper was the first black man drafted by an NBA team, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton was the first black man to sign an NBA contract, but it was Lloyd who made it onto the floor first after winning a spot under player-coach Bones McKinney in Washington following a fantastic training camp.
“Training camp with the Washington Capitols was the first time in my life the playing field was truly level,” Lloyd said. “I felt like I was a giant Tasmanian devil. I was driven.”
It wasn’t easy for any of them, not in that era.
“If the truth sounds bitter, it’s not me being bitter. … It’s just the truth,” Lloyd said. “Hatred is a terrible thing and supersedes everything. Of course you’d get angry, but you couldn’t let anger control you. You had to manage your anger and — if channeled properly — that’s a weapon.”
And so it was he fought off the cries of “n----r” that he would hear and whatever else could be thrown at him, just as Jackie Robinson had done in Brooklyn three years earlier as he broke baseball’s color line.
It was something he had grown used to. Not accepted, but it was all he had known in an era really where there was no real push for segregation as it would come in the next decade, the 1960s.
“If you were a black baby born in segregated Virginia in 1928, your prospects were slim and none,” Lloyd said this past February. “I call it an incredible journey. To me, it was just a basketball game. Now as years wear on, things crystalize as you climb that chronological ladder.”
You think, looking at the sports world, looking at the real world, that progress has been made, that if the playing field isn’t level that at least we are in a world where there is tolerance and acceptance.
And then along comes a Donald Sterling, an 80-year-old bigot with a plantation mentality about the NBA team that he owned. It wasn’t even secret, just unspoken until TMZ released a tape with his words on it, stunning America.
It could not be tolerated, and new NBA Commissioner Adam Silver acted quickly and decisively, and Earl Lloyd at 85 years of age is glad he’s still around to applaud him.
“It’s as much as he could do,” Lloyd told television station WOWK in Charleston. “In fact, I’m very proud of the new management. I knew something was going to happen, but in my wildest imagination I never imagined they would ban him forever.”
Like everyone else, even though he had a far greater personal stake in it than most, Earl Lloyd was caught up in this story since it broke.
“It was gut-wrenching,” he said. “Like I told my wife last night, if we are going to maintain our integrity as a league, the commissioner is going to have to do something very dramatic. He did, and I’m proud of him.”
The problem, though, is that this doesn’t put an end to anything other than Donald Sterling’s connection with the NBA.
“You can’t legislate some things,” Lloyd said.
Indeed, we have come a long way in race relations and in creating equality in America, but the job is not done.
“We have a lot of work to do,” Lloyd said. “The whole country has a lot of work to do. You heard the saying you judge a country by how it treats it less fortunate. How can you send a kid away to grade school without having a meal that day?”
Yet it happens, but seeing Sterling exit is another step forward.
“I’m happy. I really am,” Lloyd said. “To go from where I started to being here. He really deserved to be kicked out. If this thing had been a few years earlier, we wouldn’t have been going through this.”
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.